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It’s a sunny spring morning in Dumbo, the loft-laden Tribeca of fancy Brooklyn, perfect weather for pedaling on stationary bikes in a dark, air-conditioned studio with gold-colored lockers.
None of this is anything out of the ordinary by New York standards of ridiculousness — except for the IMAX movie screen we’re staring at, a 40’ x 24’ edifice that’s showing black and white b-roll of the Grand Canyon, poorly cropped vistas of the Hawaiian coastline, looped footage of a train passing the Eiffel Tower at least four times, computer-generated imagery of what appears to be a pretend solar system from a straight-to-video young adult movie, and a variety of other clips that would feel entirely more meaningful in a club after a few vodka RedBulls and a hit of molly. "Damn I got bitches, wifey, girlfriend, and mistress," Kendrick Lamar croons as we pedal toward 100 RPM." The instructor is tells us to forget about the "n-word," which stands for "nerves," he explains, and we’re instructed to pick up the pace "when the bass drops."
Welcome to IMAX Shift, a 50-seat cycling studio hedging its bets that the the Netflix-on-a-laptop generation will prefer to sweat it out not in front of a mirror (or a gym TV showing CNN) but rather in a you-can’t-replicate-this-at-Equinox stadium theater environment. It’s the latest entrant in the disruptive boutique fitness industry where patrons pay-as-they-go for small, sometimes personalized yoga, muay thai, or dance classes in place of a big box gyms with yearly commitments and steep cancellation fees.
That doesn’t mean boutique fitness is saving anyone any money. Shift will cost $34 for 45 minutes when it opens to the public later this week (although "pre-sale" pricing is currently available at a discount). If that feels like a steep price to experience nature vicariously, consider that unlimited rides run $375 per month, or $4,500 per year — more than twice the price of a carbon fiber road bike designed to last a lifetime. Heck, you could also tack on a redeye flight to France’s glitzy Cote D’Azur ($1,500, off season), book five days in a seaside Airbnb with access to some of the world’s most scenic bike paths, and still spend less.
Going nowhere is expensive in New York.
Going nowhere is expensive in New York. This irony is very real if you cycle to cut down on transportation costs; commuting via CitiBike saves me a grand a year, which is only a lot of money until you consider that it would pay for about three months of indoor cycling. And the bad news is that IMAX Shift’s prices are more or less in line with their biggest rivals: the feel-good cult known as SoulCycle — scented candles are involved — as well as the metrics-based Flywheel, where a leaderboard reminds patrons how out of shape they are compared to everyone else.
These numbers alone will provide an obvious answer to the obvious question: Is IMAX Shift worth it? But to the thousands of New Yorkers who spend over $2,000 a year on fitness — about the price of a traditional Equinox membership or a month-to-month ClassPass unlimited — the answer is a bit more complicated.
Anyone who’s sat through first person IMAX footage of skydivers, a looping roller coaster, or NASCAR races knows the visceral, sometimes stomach churning potential of the format. Think of it this way: if Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity could give millions of viewers the impression that they were floating in space for 90 minutes, simulating a vertiginous bike ride through the Chilean Andes or Spanish Pyrenees is certainly within the realm of possibility. And that’s something a lot of people would be willing to pay premium for — myself included.
Let me explain why.
I cycle a lot — over 1,000 miles a year, for stress relief, a sense of freedom (I rather see the city than be cooped up in the subway), and to keep myself in bikini shape; I’m a full time food critic for Eater, which means I have to stay a bit more active than normal people to actually look like normal people. But most of all I cycle because I like to — the communion with nature I experience when whizzing down a tree lined, waterfall-strewn path along the Hudson is what keeps me coming back to the Palisades week after week, even if it means two hours of excruciating, thigh-burning exhaustion. It is an escape from your larger reality by fusing with your immediate reality; your decision making tree gets winnowed down pretty quickly when it’s a choice between thinking about your Monday deadline or thinking about or the cliff you might ride off at 40 MPH.
The net effect is like doing kegels in a Russian sauna; you’re drenched with sweat by the end of it and your prostate feels a little tingly, but you don’t get much of a workout.
Those sensations are hard to replicate in a gym, where the cycling is less about communion with nature and more about communion with self; you stare at data (or loath yourself in the mirror) in a space where you won’t get pancaked by a garbage truck.
SoulCycle, the Tao Downtown of the fitness world, specializes in getting around this "you’re in a gym" problem. They turn down the lights until you can’t see your feet, turn up the temperature until you want to barf, eliminate any consoles with metrics or feedback, blast club music at fighter jet levels, and incorporate gyrating dance moves. The net effect is like doing kegels in a Russian sauna; you’re drenched with sweat by the end of it and your prostate feels a little tingly, but you don’t get much of a workout. In other words, just as Tao, a pan-Asian clubstaurant, isn’t really about the food, SoulCycle isn’t really about cycling.
FlyWheel, by contrast, embraces the more bare bones environment of a gym; you essentially race everyone in your class for 45 minutes, with a leaderboard projecting the winners and losers, like a professor who posts everyone’s law school rank publicly (although you can opt out). Then when you get home, there’s a nice little emailed report of how fast you rode and how hard you pedaled.
IMAX Shift, in turn, aims to combine the best of all three words: the metrics of Flywheel, the spectacle of nature, and the fun of SoulCycle. The possibilities for immersive visuals are endless. My cycle-craving brain imagines exotic trips through the Pamirs of Tajikistan, but really, with the right visuals, you could go full on Bill & Ted phone booth and bike through the Battle of Little Bighorn from General Custer’s perspective, ride underwater through the Amazon as piranhas dismember a sick cow, or crash a Long Island mansion in the midst of an Eyes Wide Shut sex party? That’s what I call immersive!
Too bad that immersive, escapist bliss, the kind you first felt when you watched classics like The Wizard of Oz or Ernest Goes to Camp, is nowhere to be found in this little cycling studio in Dumbo.
The primary evocation is bad karaoke; the b-rate b-roll doesn’t quite match the music.
As you pedal, the screen shows grainy footage of a verdant tropical forest as Prince’s "When Doves Cry" pipes through the surround-sound system. The primary evocation is bad karaoke; the b-rate b-roll doesn’t quite match the music. A few minutes later you’re pedaling to more energetic tunes and what IMAX describes as "music reactive visuals." Translation: you see squiggly little lines on a big screen, a dead on imitation of the old Windows Media music player you used in high school.
IMAX Shift is as immersive as a desktop screensaver.
Part of the problem is technical. Instructors give specific advice on RPMs and resistance, but to actually see those metrics you have to push a button in the middle if your bike’s console every twenty seconds to make it light up, which means IMAX Shift replicates the obnoxious experience of constantly checking your mobile phone during a movie.
It doesn’t matter how big or small the screen is; if the story is compelling, you’ll watch, if it isn’t, you won’t.
But the larger problem is storytelling. You can’t just throw together a bunch of random visuals and expect people to get excited about it. Storytelling is about tension, pacing, resolution. Storytelling explains you can’t stop looking at that crummy little television on top of a treadmill because you can’t wait to see who put that poor bloke through an industrial wood chipper on CSI: Miami. It doesn’t matter how big or small the screen is; if the story is compelling, you’ll watch, if it isn’t, you won’t.
Even an outdoor ride has a basic narrative arc: You go somewhere, you see cool stuff, you get tired, you go home. This all gives you things to look forward to. IMAX Shift, alas, is closer to a dream; you see snowflakes falling in slow motion one minute, another minute it feels like you’re riding on a cruise missile colliding into a city building. And like a dream, when the lights turn up, you forget everything.
Three positive notes to finish on: IMAX Shift, like any proper movie theater, boasts solid air conditioning, something even the best cycling studios are a bit short on. The instruction is clear — a heck of a lot easier to follow than SoulCycle. And like FlyWheel, IMAX Shift promises emailed reports for metric-loving riders. But until IMAX gets the visuals right — and honestly just showing chess match highlights would be more interesting at this point — the Shift is a big skip. The most exciting part of the experience was riding my Citibike over bridge back to Manhattan. Great views, and they’re free!